The Bernie Sanders campaign was ahead of its time — possibly by as little as three months.
Had the Democratic primary been held in the year 2040, the socialist’s overwhelming support among millennials and Zoomers would have made him the presumptive nominee by mid-March (for the purposes of this hypothetical, Sanders remains spry at age 98, and human civilization remains a thing in 20 years). Although the Vermont senator ended his 2020 campaign this week boasting a smaller coalition than he’d assembled four years prior, his resilient hold on a supermajority of voters under 40 — combined with that cohort’s exceptionally left-wing views in policy polling — suggests that the moral arc of the Democratic Party bends toward Sandersism.
That arc may have been much shorter had our present nightmare come a bit sooner. The Democratic primary was principally contested in a world that bears little resemblance to the one where it ended; and by the time Joe Biden’s promise of a return to normalcy had lost all plausibility, Sanders’s “political revolution” had lost the same. The COVID-19 pandemic foreclosed America’s path back to some facsimile of the Obama era. But it did so only after Super Tuesday had all but foreclosed Sanders’s path to the Democratic nomination. Which makes it hard not to wonder: What if the coronavirus crisis had arrived a few months earlier?
Throughout the competitive portion of the primary, Sanders was tasked with selling economic transformation to a country enjoying record-high consumer confidence and half-century-low unemployment. How much more widely might his pitch have resonated in a nation hurtling toward levels of joblessness unseen since the Great Depression? At each Democratic debate, Sanders’s rivals shot down his calls for single-payer health care with pledges to preserve the employer-provided coverage that voters know and love (or at least, tend to express approval of in Gallup surveys). How much less effective would these rebuttals have been in a country where millions of workers lose such coverage, along with their jobs, each week? In Iowa and New Hampshire, the senator’s exorbitant plans for expanding social insurance and green infrastructure were met with exasperated demands for details on how he intended to offset each cent of new spending. In a context where America’s currency remains undesirably strong, and its borrowing costs historically low — even as congressional Republicans authorize hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit spending on a biweekly basis — might the plea, “But how are you going to pay for it?” have packed a bit less punch?
Of course, the Sanders campaign’s faults weren’t limited to poor timing. And if coronavirus has created more auspicious conditions for the senator’s arguments, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the pandemic has created ones more favorable to his candidacy. After all, Democratic voters saw the Trump presidency as a crisis well before COVID-19 made its presence felt. To the extent that blue America’s post-2016 siege mentality drew voters toward the more familiar and conventionally “electable” of their options, the coronavirus may have made Biden’s ultimate victory more resounding, not less.
Regardless, debating counterfactuals is only useful for interpreting the world. And for supporters of the socialist senator, the point has always been to change it. What this crisis might have done for the Sanders campaign is an interesting question; what opportunities it still presents for advancing progressive reform is an important one. And there is some reason to believe that the present emergency is (at least) as promising a vehicle for bottom-up social change as Sanders’s candidacy once was.
The senator’s advocacy for single-payer health care over the course of the 2020 race did little to increase public support for that policy; in fact, Medicare for All became 24 percent less popular among Democratic voters between March and November of last year in Quinnipiac’s polling (a decline likely attributable to sustained attacks on the program from Sanders’s primary rivals). By contrast, between the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of March, support for Medicare for All jumped by nine points in Morning Consult’s survey.
Sanders’s four-year crusade to move the boundaries of political possibility on Capitol Hill yielded few concrete victories. While his influence on the national political discourse pulled many Democrats leftward, his movement’s lackluster showing in the 2018 House primaries gave Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s moderates little cause for guarding their left flanks. The coronavirus, by contrast, hasn’t just shifted policy debates leftward in the Democratic House, but has also forced the Republican Senate majority to acquiesce to a historically generous expansion of unemployment benefits, the provision of direct cash assistance to all working-class families, and a (grossly inadequate) paid sick leave program. The Vermont senator’s evangelism for Nordic social democracy may have raised millennials’ awareness of the U.S. welfare state’s inadequacies. But by overwhelming unemployment insurance bureaucracies from coast to coast, COVID-19 has made the necessity of “bigger government” apparent even to the likes of Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis.
Most promisingly, the pandemic is now broadcasting Sanders’s most vital message — that America’s working people deserve more than they’ve been given, and are (collectively) more powerful than they realize — at a volume too loud for plutocratic propaganda to drown out. The coronavirus has forced the U.S. government to inform grocery-store clerks, warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and crop hands that they are among our society’s most “essential” members — even as many of their employers have revealed a callous indifference to their personal safety. Together, these developments have fostered a wave of worker militancy, with warehouse strikes disrupting Amazon deliveries, and GE workers walking out in hopes of compelling their bosses to shift production away from jet engines and toward ventilators. This is the stuff that change is made of. A progressive movement capable of credibly threatening primary challenges would nudge Pelosi’s caucus leftward; a labor movement capable of credibly threatening to shutter Amazon’s supply chain, however, could turn Joe Biden into FDR.
If Democrats manage to win power this November, an advanced stage of the COVID crisis will almost certainly still be around to greet the new administration come January. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s latest projections, America’s unemployment rate will remain above 9 percent at the end of 2021. The damage that coronavirus is doing to the health-care industry’s finances, meanwhile, is likely to yield widespread premium hikes and hospital closures next year. An America in which the private sector durably fails to provide full employment or affordable health care is one in which the left will find broader sympathy for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. And a well-organized progressive movement — proficient in the disparate arts of cajoling elites in smoke-filled rooms and emboldening workers on picket lines — could translate that public support into political revolution.